Academic leaders denounce travel ban as rash and cruel

Higher education leaders and academics across the United States have denounced President Donald Trump’s travel ban as divisive, detrimental and “un-American”. The Scholars at Risk Network told University World News that for scholars facing death threats or imprisonment back home the executive order was like a torpedo hitting a lifeboat.

Trump signed the executive order on Friday 27 January temporarily banning entry into the US of refugees and citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East and Africa, causing chaos for researchers and students from those countries who work or attend US universities but are currently out of the country.

The 90-day ban applied to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, while refugees from Syria are banned indefinitely.

On Friday a federal judge issued a temporary suspension of the executive order and on Saturday the State Department reopened US borders to visa holders from the seven named states. But President Trump has pledged to seek an emergency stay on the judge’s ruling. In a tweet early on Saturday, he said the ruling by the “so-called judge” was “ridiculous and will be overturned”. There is uncertainty over how long any legal challenge will take, as well as the outcome.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators said on 30 January that universities and colleges have already begun reporting cases of students and scholars stranded after travelling for reasons including studying abroad, attending conferences and visiting sick or dying family members. University leaders urged all international students to think again before travelling abroad.

The order drew a strong response from academic leaders and faculty members across the United States.

By Friday morning 3 February a petition strongly denouncing the ban and urging President Trump to reconsider the executive order had been signed by 27,000 academic supporters and 20,000 US faculty members, including 51 Nobel laureates; 104 winners of the Fields/Dirac/Clark/Turing/Poincare medals, the Breakthrough Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowships; and 572 members of the national academies of sciences, engineering, and arts.

Responding to widespread protests against the order at home and abroad, the president on Sunday tweeted: “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”

But in a statement, NAFSA accused the new administration of “undermining the nation’s long-held values and making America less safe” and turning away people who had already been “thoroughly vetted”.

'Arbitrary, rash and cruel to threatened scholars’

The order causes the most acute problems for scholars who have escaped death threats in their own country to work in the US.

Robert Quinn, the founding executive director of Scholars at Risk or SAR – the New York-based global network of higher education institutions and individuals working to protect threatened academics – told University World News: “For the scholars we help – who are facing threats of imprisonment and death from authoritarians and extremists in their home countries – the executive order is like a torpedo hitting a lifeboat. It is arbitrary, rash and cruel.”

He said SAR-affiliated scholars in the US are already being forced by the ban to cancel travel for teaching, research and conferences to avoid any problems coming back. Scholars outside the US seeking help, those who stand up for freedom of thought, inquiry, expression and belief, are cut off from the help they desperately need and deserve.

“This is especially true for those from Syria, Iraq and Iran. If not rescinded or substantially modified soon it certainly will put them at greater risk. The only bright spot is that the higher education community in the US and abroad has responded beautifully."

He said university leaders have put out public statements supporting core higher education values and their staff and students from other places. Universities and colleges inside the US have offered to host scholars and students affected by the ban.

“We are grateful to each and every one of them and invite institutions not yet involved – in the US and elsewhere – to give us a call,” Quinn said.

Undermining internationalisation

Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman said while a strong visa process is necessary for the nation’s security, the order is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.

“The order is stranding students who have been approved to study here and are trying to get back to campus, and threatens to disrupt the education and research of many others.”

Esther D Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, said there is no evidence that the order to suspend refugee admissions and place a 90-day ban on individuals from certain countries will make America safer as claimed.

“In fact, they will actually undermine our future foreign relations. Perceived around the world as a thinly veiled attempt to target Muslim-majority countries, these new measures risk alienating friends and allies, particularly in this region where relationships are so vital.”

“Moreover, this action overlooks the balance between the openness that makes us great with the security that keeps us safe. It ignores the careful and thorough vetting procedures that have been established to welcome those we want in our nation while keeping out those who intend us harm.”

Harvard University President Drew Faust issued a letter calling on federal officials to consider the ban’s impact on universities, according to The Boston Globe.

“Our robust commitment to internationalism is not an incidental or dispensable accessory. It is integral to all we do,” Faust wrote, noting that nearly half of the university’s deans are immigrants.

Racial and religious profiling

The petition signed by the 7,000 academics described the executive order’s targeting of citizens from majority-Muslim populations as “a major step towards implementing the stringent racial and religious profiling promised on the campaign trail” and that ethnic and religious profiling “are in stark contrast to the values and principles we hold”.

It said the order significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research.

Of the million or so international students in the US, 17,354 come from the countries affected by the ban, according to statistics for 2015-16 published by the Institute of International Education. More than two-thirds of them came from Iran, with 12,269 Iranian students and 1,891 Iranian professors or researchers hosted by US universities last year.

From Iran alone, more than 3,000 students have received PhDs from American universities in the past three years.

“The proposed executive order limits collaborations with researchers from these nations by restricting entry of these researchers to the US and can potentially lead to departure of many talented individuals who are current and future researchers and entrepreneurs in the US,” the petition says.

Implementation of the executive order will tear families apart by restricting entry for family members who live outside of the US and limiting the ability to travel for those who reside and work in the US, the petition adds.

“This measure is fatally disruptive to the lives of these immigrants, their families, and the communities of which they form an integral part. It is inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.”

Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 400 colleges and universities, said the United States has long benefited from the scientific, cultural and economic contributions of international students and scholars and America's state colleges and universities have been strengthened by the presence of students and faculty from around the globe, including those from the seven countries specifically targeted by the president's executive order.

“We share in the collective commitment to protect our national security while at the same time enriching our nation with invaluable contributions from abroad. Accordingly, we respectfully urge the administration to reconsider its recent action."

’Irreparable damage’

For the Association of American Universities – which represents 62 leading research institutions, 60 located in the US and two in Canada – President Mary Sue Coleman said the Trump administration should, as soon as possible, make clear to the world that the United States continues to welcome the most talented individuals from all countries to study, teach and carry out research and scholarship at our universities.

“It is vital to our economy and the national interest that we continue to attract the best students, scientists, engineers and scholars,” she said.

“That is why we have worked closely with previous administrations, especially in the wake of 9/11, to ensure our visa system prevents entry by those who wish to harm us, while maintaining the inflow of talent that has contributed so much to our nation.”

She warned that other countries have set the goal of surpassing the United States as the global leader in higher education, research and innovation.

“Allowing them to replace this country as the prime destination for the most talented students and researchers would cause irreparable damage, and help them to achieve their goal of global leadership.”

Robert Quinn of SAR said the order means hardship for foreign scholars and students resident in the US but caught outside when the orders were imposed. But it will also mean time and resources for their host campuses trying to help them.

“It means more extensive delays in processing future visitors and possibly higher rates of denials. It means conferences and workshops will relocate to other countries, and generally undermines the US as an attractive place to study, research and build one's career.”